I am coming from a land where history was often re-written. Not only by the victors, as the folk wisdom goes, but also by new leaders when they eliminated their own internal competition. The borders were moved above the head of my grandparents and parents, the new power came with their own version of history, great wars and battles got new victors and it went on and on and on…
One of my favourite writers used to make a bon mot: from tomorrow everything has been different when referring to this constant change of historiography.
It’s an understandable desire if from such places people move to Canada – a country often seen as the epitome of stability and the rule of law. That kind of long-term safety that doesn’t change with transient governments of various party colours.
For all of us coming from unstable places with stormy histories, one of the most attractive attributes of the Canadian life is the long-term stability and the rule of the law. Economically, the investments of the previous generations will not become worthless papers overnight… legislatively (till recently) the rules are set for a long time and abiding the law is the norm, not the exception. There are parts of the world where foreign occupation that lasted for centuries has developed the mentality according to which the “brave” and the “smart” cheat the governments and the authorities – and such behaviour is not only tolerated but regarded as virtue! But some of us prefer to live in places where the citizens gladly and willingly perform their civic duties.
Is then Canada the ideal perfect place to live? I wouldn’t go that far… because there is no perfect place without issues. Yet, compared to many crazy places, it is the promised land.
The street where I grew up as a child and schoolboy, has had five different names in less than 120 years. Because who was considered the good boy yesterday, suddenly became the bad boy overnight. And then we must erase them from the history. Sometimes literally: there was this president and party leader who ordered the “photoshopping” of archive photographs to make his earlier opponents disappear from history books. Of course, they were physically eliminated (killed) before the retouch of the pictures…
I am scared and shocked to see that certain Canadian political actors think that following such a path of re-doing the history, the “progressive” thing to do. Whatever that progressive activism means… it cannot end well. Not to mention that it is useless. By renaming schools and removing statutes – nobody succeeded yet to change the history!
Of course, as social and moral norms are changing, since nothing is carved in stone, our perceptions and evaluation of historical events or personalities might change. Eventually, in both directions.
It may sound insane but James Joyce’s world-famous novel, Ulysses, used to be subject to prosecution and banned in Canada from 1923 until 1949. (I just saw recently an exhibition at Pier 21 in Halifax – which was our Ellis Island during the immigration by ships – where you can see the famous/infamous book on display, as an item the customs officers were looking for when examining the newcomers’ belongings…) Today it is considered, even in Canada, one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.
The analogy I used is just to remind us: we can remove Canada’s first Prime Minister’s statues from public spaces and hide in secret storage places… or we can remove a politician’s name from school buildings – but that won’t change the history. And what we should not do: apply retrospectively today’s norms and ideas to yesterday’s event.
Just as we laugh today (with shame and disgrace) at the censorship going against Joyce’s Ulysses – so might our children’s generation be ashamed by the irrational and stupid activism of today’s social warriors. Once, Louis Riel was considered a rebel and executed as a traitor – today we have a long weekend holiday in Manitoba named after him.
I understand and even accept the need to re-evaluate Sir John A. Macdonald’s role and his deeds while in the PM office. Applying today’s norms, we can find him racist and/or alcoholic (depending on which side of the witch hunting you are). I also consider that after 150 years we should be able to leave the task of writing (re-writing?) the history to the specialists: we have trained historians who could do a better job than the reckless political activists of du jour…
This constant urge to respond to any and all of the grievances of every special interest group is a never-ending downward spiral: there will always be another group who will claim with the same vigour – and using the precedence of the last activism act – another change, the removal or reinstall of a statue or name or whatever idea they’d come up with.
Do you remember what happened with the butcher shop where aggressive vegans held a demonstration? Me neither… But the history of our nation should be something more sacred than a trivial dietary issue. I feel uncomfortable to let radical activists reshape the Canadian history. I know, from my previous experiences and from the stories of my native land that these attempts never end well. I wish my chosen homeland do better!